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My Summer Reading List: The Man Who Ate Everything

Originally posted on September 3, 2009.

The unifying theme of the books on my reading list has been the narrative – my life in food. Ruth Reichl’s journey from awkward youth to renowned food critic (Tender at the Bone), Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical “adventures in the culinary underbelly” (Kitchen Confidential) and the article that turned into a career change and then a best selling book (Heat) for former New Yorker editor Bill Buford. This cannot be said of Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything.

In 1989, Steingarten was just your run-of-the-mill Harvard power-lawyer working for an average, everyday Manhattan mega firm when he was offered the position of food critic for Vogue magazine. I knew this from watching Iron Chef: America, where he is the curmudgeonly judge with an opinion about everything. I also knew that The Man Who Ate Everything was both a James Beard Book Award Finalist and a Julia Child Book Award Winner. But before he could assume his new post, he had to agree to eat everything. No small task for a self-proclaimed finicky eater.

The Man Who Ate Everything, unlike the other books on my list, is a collection of essays about food. Some are related to one another and even in chronological order; most are neither. When reading, one is left with two impressions about Steingarten’s skill as a essayist: he is a brilliant investigative writer and he is damned funny. He takes little information at face value, preferring to research all information on any given subject. He was one of the first to observe the contradiction between the French fat-laden diet and France’s astonishingly low occurrence of heart disease, now known as the French Paradox.

Steingarten does not hesitate to punch holes in long accepted beliefs on diet and nutrition, after all he does far more research than many of the so-called experts. Often he takes the USDA to task for their lack of knowledge on health issues. More importantly, he underscores that though they have not done their homework, they still issue doctrine about what homo sapiens should and should not consume.

Among the myths he debunks are the unfounded beliefs that salt, alcohol or cholesterol cause heart disease. For instance: The French Paradox cannot be dismissed. It should have been noticed decades ago. And its contribution is to encourage researchers to discover the many other common causes of heart disease besides the saturated fat in our diets. The French Paradox is an embarrassment only to those nutritionists and physicians who had refused to recognize the obvious. We have known for some time that half of all heart attacks occur in people with average or low cholesterol, and that half of all people with high cholesterol never have heart attacks.

In addition to providing much fact-based insight, the author also does a wonderful job of painting pictures with words. His journeys to Italy, France, Asia and Tunisia leap off the page with metered narrative, but he is also very proficient (as Iron Chef: America fans can attest) at dry wit and one liners:

Miguel de Cervantes once wrote, “La major salsa del mundo es la hambre,” the best sauce in the world is the hunger. Cervantes had obviously never tasted ketchup.

I have little doubt that I will read this book again and again as it is packed with knowledge and wisdom. I am grateful that Steingarten traded jurisprudence for food writing. The world is lousy with lawyers and has precious few gastronomic writers.

Next I will conclude my summer reading list with Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef.

My Summer Reading List: The Making of a Chef

Originally posted on October 7, 2009.

Ok, so astrologically Summer ended two weeks ago but I had a busy September.  Besides, we’re still knocking out 90 degree days here in L.A. (Lower Alabama).  The final book on my list is Michael Ruhlman’s landmark work The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America.  Rulhman’s mission?  Infiltrate the CIA.

The award-winning food writer went about documenting life as a student at the most prestigious culinary school in the world through first-hand experience.  Ruhlman attended classes, took exams, cooked in campus restaurants and even braved blizzards, and he translates it all beautifully to the written word.

Deftly the author guides the reader through Chef Pardus’ Skills class, echoes Chef Coppedge’s mastery of the baking arts and vividly describes the Odin-like majesty of President Ferdinand Metz.  Most importantly the prose gives one an accurate feel for the sacrifice and stress associated with studying at the Culinary.

A reoccurring theme throughout each kitchen is a dependency not on recipes but rather on ratios.  Each new chef/instructor hammers home the importance of ratios.  So much so that now I am ready to order Ruhlman’s latest best seller named, coincidentally, Ratio.

My journey through some of the great food tomes this summer was done because I felt I was lacking a theoretical and academic foundation to go with my 23 years of practical experience.  After reading these books, especially The Making of a Chef I am reminded of a great line from the movie Good Will Hunting, “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”

Food Detectives host Ted Allen

Originally posted at Edible TV on August 19, 2008.

I guess it shows how much of a foodie geek I am that I waited with great anticipation for Food Network’s latest hit Food Detectives with Ted Allen. I was justly rewarded. Food Detectives is very entertaining and host Ted Allen is charming. He’s been a judge on every season of Top Chef (Bravo) and Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” But Ted first hit the small screen on the much beloved Queer Eye for Straight Guy.

Today Allen is an award winning food writer and cookbook author, he is the spokesman for Robert Mondavi Private Selection, and now the host of a hit TV show. According to Allen the ratings for Food Detectives have been great. In fact, the show’s popularity is growing so much that actually had their best ratings the same night the world tuned in to watch Michael Phelps make Olympic history.

Recently, I got to speak with Ted. What I had planned to be a professional interview turned into two foodies sharing tips and stories of culinary adventure. Here’s the interview part:

What has the journey from “Queer Eye” to “Food Detectives” been like?

Things have worked out so well. Queer Eye was a hit and ran for a hundred episodes. I’ve been on every season of Top Chef and Iron Chef: America. I’ve been able to maintain a presence doing something I’m passionate about.

How did the idea of Food Detectives come to fruition?

There have been a few similar shows, the most notable being Alton Brown’s show Good Eats and there was the Secret Life of. But we felt that food lore wasn’t being done. On Good Eats, what Alton does so well is he teaches the science. Alton instructs, we explore. We test the science.

When you judge on Iron Chef and the theme ingredient is revealed do you try to figure out what you would make if you were the challenger?

Of course. Definitely. I don’t think I would think of any of the stuff Morimoto comes up with. And I’m blown away by Michael Symon. Barry (Barry Rice, Allen’s partner and an accomplished interior designer) and I have eaten at both of his restaurants in Cleveland and really enjoyed them. All of them are just amazing Mario, Cat, Bobby Flay.

Speaking of Flay, Ted offered this anecdote:

We used to live across the street from Bobby and his wife, Stephanie March. Barry had recently finished redoing our kitchen when we ran into Bobby and Stephanie on the street. They were getting ready to redo theirs so we invited them up to have a look. At one point Barry says, “You two should come over for dinner.”

I’m thinking, “there’s no way I’m cooking dinner for Bobby Flay.”

One last question, how does one become a judge on Iron Chef?

(Laughter) Get to know the guy who chooses them.

Photo courtesy of about.com.

Diary of a Wannabe TV Chef – PT 1

In the coming months I will be documenting my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, thanks to shows like A&E’s Biography and TFN’s Chefography it appears that the two most import elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.

Origin of Wannabe TV Chef

Wannabe TV ChefI guess it all started when I was about five years old. My maternal grandmother was down for a visit from her home in Spokane, Washington. My father and brother had taken my grandfather on some manly adventure that I was apparently too young to appreciate. I was left to the women of the house who had decided to prepare a large batch of biscuits for when the men returned.

I watched diligently as my mother sifted flour into a large bowl. She added a few other dry ingredients and finally buttermilk (ick!). She then set about stirring them together. My sisters had pulled out three medium sized cast iron skillets and began smearing bacon grease on the inside of them. My grandmother set the oven for 350 and they each chatted happily. Looking back it was a true Rockwellian moment.

Tired of feeling like the fifth wheel I whined my way into the kitchen. My grandmother took me under her wing most likely to spare the other girls from my childish banter. She set out a large clump of biscuit dough and showed me how to knead it into a would-be biscuit. She then produced a small iron skillet and together we greased and filled it with the mass of dough. I only made one biscuit that day compared to the dozens prepared by my mother and sisters but it was by far the biggest and that was good enough for me.

I could not wait for it to come out of the oven so that I could savor the biscuit I had made. I remember how golden the top was and I can still hear my mother telling me that I had to let it cool a little or I could burn myself. How did it taste? Beats me. It was like over 30 years ago. That is a long time to carry a memory. The important thing is that this one episode introduced me to the joys of the culinary arts.

As I grew older I grew bolder, at least in things gastronomic. When I was roughly ten I got a Presto Magic Burger Maker for a gift. This was the ultimate in freedom. A hamburger was my favorite meal and now I could have one whenever I wanted. It did not take long for me to discover the different burger flavors I could create by experimenting with the various spices in my mother’s cabinets. After that I began creating with my mothers leftovers, specifically a leftover roast was a favorite canvas of mine. I called what I created goulash. It started with cubed pieces of roast beef or pork simmered in barbecue sauce but soon I was braising meat in many strange liquid concoctions, most all of them fiery.

After high school and during college I worked a few restaurant jobs as a busboy, dishwasher, and sandwich maker. But it was after college that I was introduced to restaurant management. I became a manager trainee with Domino’s Pizza. I learned many things that I still keep with me today during those years with the country’s number one pizza delivery company. Chief among them is my love of ethnic food. I began a friendship with another employee, a dental school student from Syria. From him I first learned the flavors and spices of the Middle East.

To this day Mediterranean cuisine is one of my favorites. A few years later, while trying to earn a living as a musician in Nashville I found that restaurant work offered me the opportunity to make money while maintaining a flexible schedule for my musical endeavors. I ran a steak restaurant in a swanky neighborhood, worked as a line cook at a Tex-Mex restaurant, a server at an eclectic mall eatery, a baker, and even a hot dog vendor at college basketball games.

At this time in my life I had friends from different parts of the world. I learned traditional Mexican food from an LA bass player, Indonesian food from an exchange student from Jakarta, African food from a tennis player raised in Nigeria, and tons of other recipes from watching cooking shows on cable. Graham Kerr, especially, had a significant influence on me.

In the 90’s I took a trip to Chicago that would have a profound impact on my life. Not only did I try real Chicago pizza but I also I learned of a cable cooking channel called the Food Network. Can you imagine my joy in finding a TV network just about food? It was like the mother ship had landed.

Soon I found myself engrossed in the creations of Emeril Lagasse, Ming Tsai, Bobby Flay, and the incomparable Wolfgang Puck. I learned of food trends and restaurant concepts and ultimately it all began to make since. I was meant to be a chef, specifically a TV Chef. I mean, why else would I have been given talent in both the entertainment field and the kitchen right? Destiny. Like Abraham Lincoln rising from poverty to become President, or Albert Einstein overcoming bad study habits to become the most important figure in physics, or a simple farm boy like Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi Knight. Destiny.

I have dedicated myself for the last four years to this goal. First, I wrote a cookbook. Next I began cooking in competitions, soon after I was writing cooking articles for magazines and online sources. Then I left my job at a car rental company to return to professional cooking. Now I am a full time food writer and I have created a web site entitle what else? WannabeTVchef.com

I am a foodie with a vision, a dreamer with a plan, and master of the spatula. I am Stuart Reb Donald, Wannabe TV Chef.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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